Playing with Adaptations


One might think adapting for the stage is for unimaginative; if you can’t come up with an original play, just take any old pot-boiler and mash it into something theatrical. But you probably don’t see it that way. You are reading the Stage section of Palatinate; you are a cultural firecracker; and you know there to be as much creative originality vested in the process of adaptation as there in the composition of original work. An adaptation might in fact be thought of as an original work because, as all intellectual property buffs know, originality is found in fixed forms and not in the abstract.

So Bernstein’s operetta Candide is just as original as Voltaire’s novel; and conversely, the novelisation of Skins is just as original as the iconic TV drama it unfortunately spawned from. But even if we congratulate adapters of literary works for their original expression and hard work, they are still subject to the wrath of devoted fans. Characters left out, sub-plots omitted, emotive dialogues unsaid; the adapter just can’t win sometimes.

Should we then reconsider our approach to adaptations? Someone is always going to be disappointed, but is that a fair reaction? Sure, if the play is bad in itself, ask for your money back. But can we label an adaptation ‘bad’ simply because a feature of the novel did not translate well to stage? Certainly no one would wish to see a play that was wholly deferential to its literary progenitor.

If there exists a novel, play, and even film all stemming from the same story, working in perfect harmony; separate, yet inexorably linked, then I have seen it. Shortly before arriving in the southerly, near-tropical climes of Country Durham I took in a show at The Citizens Theatre in Glasgow. A revived production of Trainspotting (adapted for stage by Harry Gibson in 1994 from Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel) was showing to great critical acclaim and the adulation of audiences. Few people in the UK are unfamiliar with this post-modern classic and its bitter-sweet depiction of addiction, casual violence, and social deprivation among Edinburgh’s underclass in the 90s.

Most of the audience that night probably had certain expectations. While they may not have demanded outright that the play look and feel a certain way, it is likely that they expected something akin to the 1996 film adaption which made stars of its director Danny Boyle and a young Ewan MacGregor. It was this iconic depiction of Welsh’s original work that we (well, alright, I) had in mind as the curtain went up. Despite having read the novel there is no escaping that MacGregor is synonymous with the protagonist Mark Renton in my mind; and part of me hoped ‘Born Slippy’ by Underworld would play as the curtain fell.

I’m happy to report that these expectations were met only in part. The costumes for Renton and his milieu were all heavily influenced by those used in the film, and the general set design might be described as an homage to Boyle et al. Yet the play was more conscious of all preceding source material. The monologues and short stories that pepper Welsh’s novel are rendered in full and remain just as hilarious and grotesque as they are on paper. One story told by a young woman who secretly feeds her soiled tampon to a group of obnoxious male university students was met with shrieks of delight and horror.

In short, the play occupied a middle ground between the novel and the film. It drew on the strengths of each: the iconography and pace of the film; and the juxtaposing narrative of the novel. As an adaptation it is successful because it translates that which works in another medium and manipulates other aspects of the novel/film to fit the stage. Adapting for theatre is after all a labour of love (and certainly not one for quick profits).

The success of Trainspotting on stage can be ascribed to its interplay with other mediums. The Director, designer, and even the actors, can draw on the preceding text and film to create something that feels both fresh, yet familiar. Such a balance should be the aspiration of all theatrical adaptations: the play should be neither deferential to the novel, nor exist in a vacuum.

Photograph: Hild Bede Theatre 

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